Of the many ways you could describe last night's fund-raiser at Mount Vernon, the best might be as an elegant, extravagant, bejeweled history lesson.
Using a tent instead of a classroom, it was an attempt to address what guest and author David McCullough called the "generation of America's young who are, by and large, historically illiterate." He and 500 others at the party--among them Ken Starr, Stephen Breyer, Al Haig, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Chuck Robb and John Warner--are out to change that by kicking off a campaign for a new educational center at the home of the nation's first president.
History buffs, politicians, diplomats, authors and lots of big-bucks business types from around the country attended the $1,000-a-plate dinner, which not only attempted to evoke George Washington's world but also re-created Jacqueline Kennedy's famous state dinner held at his estate 38 years ago.
Guests traveled by boat down the Potomac and then watched the sun set from the sloping lawn of the mansion after a brief tour of the house.
"This is a very special moment," said National Gallery Director Earl "Rusty" Powell. "It's very, very beautiful. Mr. Washington had a good sense of placement."
Looking at things from a different historical perspective, lawyer and presidential confidant Vernon Jordan raised an eyebrow and quipped that "I'm just here representing the slave quarters."
The reason behind all the pomp--which unfolded amid a spectacular fireworks show followed by a fife-and-drum concert--was to raise $600,000 toward building a $60 million educational center at Mount Vernon, which receives no federal or state funding.
"When you go into the mansion, you see a lot of antiques," said Mount Vernon spokesman Sally McDonough. "It's interesting to see the bed George Washington died in, but it's not really telling you who he was."
And so last night's goal was to travel back in time twice--to the Colonial world of George Washington, and back to Mount Vernon's most glamorous moment in modern history: the night in 1961 when President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted a party on its lawn, the first state dinner held outside the White House.
Two months earlier, the Kennedys had been feted in France with a grand evening at Versailles, and the first lady returned determined to showcase a historic American site in much the same way. An upcoming state visit by Pakistan's president, Ayub Khan, provided the opportunity, so a dinner at Mount Vernon was scheduled for July 11. Social secretary Letitia Baldrige had just four weeks to pull it off.
News of the dinner created an instant frenzy among people desperate to be included. "Wives were pounding on their husbands: 'You don't mean anything to this administration if we're not invited!' " Baldrige recalled. But the guest list turned out to be the least of her worries. "If I had known the logistical problems, I would have resigned in protest. We didn't realize that Mount Vernon in July was a mosquito swamp."
The obstacles were daunting: no electricity, no modern toilets, no kitchen--and millions of bugs. The house itself was too small to seat all the guests; dinner had to be served under a tent erected on the riverside, leaving guests vulnerable to the region's fickle summer storms and notorious humidity.
White House chef Rene Verdon needed dishes that could be prepared at the executive mansion and then transported in Army field kitchen trucks to Mount Vernon. He prepared a simple menu: avocado and crab meat followed by chicken in a cream sauce. Dessert was raspberries and cream, and petits fours.
Baldrige and the National Park Service (which maintains the estate's visitor service areas) marshaled their considerable forces and managed to avert disaster--until the day of the party.
First, nothing could quite mask the smell inside the Army eight-hole toilet trailers. "Believe you me, you had to be gutsy to go in there," Baldrige said, wrinkling her nose at the memory. Then, the after-dinner concert by the National Symphony Orchestra was almost canceled when it was discovered no one would be able to hear a note; all the sound seemed to be sucked into a ravine behind the musicians. A band shell was erected in two hours.
Park Service workers sprayed the grounds with insecticide early in the day, but by 4 p.m. the mosquitoes had returned in force and the grounds were sprayed again. It was at this point chef Verdon announced he was going back to France; he was convinced the food was tainted and he would be blamed. "I'm not going to be responsible for the death of all these people!" he cried. Two Secret Service agents were pressed into an emergency tasting, and when neither collapsed, the dinner proceeded as planned.
The guest list was whittled to 132 people, who were transported down the Potomac on boats to retrace the journey made by George Washington's guests. It was a balmy night, almost cool. Upon arrival, the party was served bourbon mint juleps and treated to a Revolutionary War military drill. After dinner, the NSO performed selections by Gould, Mozart, Debussy, Gershwin and Liszt.
The evening was a triumph: "It was thrilling," Baldrige remembered. "It was so sexy. I would have never said that then, but it was sexy."
"It was an absolute fairyland," recalled former defense secretary Robert McNamara, who attended both the original and last night's dinners. "You felt so pleased and proud of our nation."
Fast-forward to 1999, the bicentennial of Washington's death. Baldrige recently included the Mount Vernon dinner in her latest book, "In the Kennedy Style," and suggested re-creating the night as a fund-raiser. Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post executive committee, and Mary Ourisman, a veteran of elaborate gala events, were asked to chair the event. "I loved the idea," said Ourisman. "I like one-of-a-kind parties."
Plans quickly expanded into a weekend of activities, including Saturday's reception in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, dinner at the Library of Congress and a lecture by McCullough, a historian whose biography of Harry Truman won the Pulitzer Prize.
The centerpiece was of course the party, which was designed to reflect Jackie Kennedy's style, circa 1961. There were a few changes from the outset: This dinner had 500 guests, making it four times the size of the original. It was quickly decided that a July date was just begging for trouble; October, on the other hand, eliminated most of the weather extremes and the bug problem. Fireworks called the guests to dinner, and the NSO was replaced with the Peter Duchin Orchestra.
"We didn't think that people, at the end of the evening, wanted to sit and listen to a concert," Ourisman said. "We thought it would be more fun for the guests to have dancing."
But the rest of the evening (with the exception of sanitary facilities, which have been modernized) was matched in painstaking detail: Guests were once again ferried to Mount Vernon by boat, served mint juleps and greeted with a military drill, although this time the soldiers were--fittingly enough--reenactors instead of active military.
The staff of Design Cuisine catering was asked to duplicate the night's menu, and Verdon was flown in from his home in California to ensure authenticity.
"For its day, this menu was probably quite forward-looking," said Carolyn Peachey, who coordinated the weekend. "By today's standards, the menu is very simple and straightforward."
And so, at preliminary tastings, the dinner was served two ways: the original of 38 years ago (such as the appetizer of avocado and crab meat in an avocado shell) and in a slightly updated version (in a puff pastry shell). Each time, the dinner committee selected the older presentation.
The 1958 Haut Brion Blanc served at the original dinner now goes for $200 a bottle, which meant the 1995 vintage was substituted. It was impossible to re-create the table service exactly--no White House china has 500 settings--but a dark-blue-rimmed plate matched closely. Ourisman kept the colors of the original bouquets but substituted fall flowers for the summer blooms: dahlias instead of yellow lilies, for example.
But the tent was once again Tiffany blue lined in yellow (a larger version, custom-made at a cost of $57,000, to be recouped by a later sale or rentals), the tablecloths still yellow, the seat cushions blue, and the chandeliers wound with huckleberry and candles.
There was a minor panic Friday night when Peachey realized that right next to the Tiffany blue tent sat the big, ugly white kitchen tent. "You've gone to all the trouble of having this tent made and the liner flown in and dyed to match the tablecloths," she said. "Everything is picture-perfect . . . and then there's this white tent."
And so leftover yellow liner was draped over the near side of the kitchen tent. Disaster once again averted; perfection restored.
With Verdon overseeing the meal, everything was pretty much as it was in 1961 except for the chirping of cell phones. "The chef has not lost his touch," said White House aide Mack McLarty.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, JFK's niece, noted that her uncle "was a student of history and he cherished this place and all it represented. . . . John and Jackie Kennedy would be so proud."
Substituting Peter Duchin's band for the classical music seemed to have been a good choice. America Online co-founder Jim Kimsey surveyed the interplay of business, culture and diplomacy in the tent and pronounced a verdict that was barely audible above the din: "Is Washington a great town or what?"
The man who gave his name to the city would have been proud.
"I think George Washington has friends in higher places," Ourisman said.
If he does, we bet they had a great time at his party.
CAPTION: A fife and drum corps, top, entertains guests at last night's re-creation of a dinner hosted by the Kennedys in 1961; at the original event, the first lady sat next to guest of honor Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan.
CAPTION: Wanting to showcase an American historic site with a state dinner, Mrs. Kennedy chose Mount Vernon.
CAPTION: Barrett Prettyman, left, Tony Morella and Connie Morella on the Mount Vernon lawn before dinner.
CAPTION: Claire Dwoskin, left, and Mary Ourisman enjoy the fireworks display from Mount Vernon's back porch; Letitia Baldrige, below center, chats with guests at last night's event. As social secretary for the Kennedys, she was responsible for pulling off the 1961 event in four weeks.